The Clare Spark Blog

May 20, 2010

“Criminal Minds,” “The Mentalist, “and the pathology of rural America

Thomas Gibson playing Agent Hotchner, scowling as usual

Like it or not, most Americans get their notions of mental health from the media, including the numerous television shows in which serial killers run amok until a heroic band of profilers psyches them out and captures them (but not before we have seen oceans of blood and other mayhem). (This blog was followed up here: https://clarespark.com/2011/05/20/the-mentalist-melville-blake-and-israel/.)

This blog is about the episode of CBS’s Criminal Minds that aired on Wednesday May 19. Although most of their prey reside in Southern, Midwestern, and Western rural and small town America (and this was no exception), this show that weekly demonstrates the prowess of a team of Quantico-trained FBI agents strongly came out against the internet (especially social networks) as a source of murderous “narcissism”.  Social networks, they allege,  primarily cater to vanity, enabling voyeurs and attention-hungry techies (like last night’s murderer). The output of these new-fangled maddening inventions is [the Red State of] “Anarchy.”  Narcissism is understood as a craving for attention among those who, sucked into celebrity culture, have inflated self-esteem and have found their own niche among the pale-faced perverts who populate these non-urban , almost wilderness, areas. But most subtly of all, the killer of May 19 wanted to kill women who looked like him (this exact phrase was repeated several times). Is it too much of a leap to propose that embedded in this horrific tale is a reproach from liberals to conservatives who have resisted affirmative action and other liberal remedies for institutional discrimination? Are conservatives indeed all nativists and racists who instinctively abhor those who are “different?”

As many of these blogs have argued, “narcissism” is the term of opprobrium traditionally ascribed to everyone from actors and artists to mad scientists, and to technicians of every kind, including greedy Wall Street businessmen.  It is a reproach emanating from communitarians and other corporatists whose diagnosis of fascism rested upon the idea that Hitler’s supporters were one-sided in their educational training and experience, hence lacked the spirituality that can only be instilled by “faith.” Or Faith, Hope, and Charity, as Glenn Beck likes to put it, echoing centuries of religious conservative thought.

But Freud and many of his followers described normal or “healthy” narcissism, understood as having developed a strong sense of self, and being able to soothe oneself in the face of social disapproval or grievous losses. One gets this healthy narcissism from a strong maternal bond (I am referring here to attachment theory as put forth by John Bowlby), with separation from the mother managed successfully. This healthy narcissism grounded in early echoing and mirroring of the child’s feelings, never came up in the episode, though it could have been worked in by the didactic genius team member Reed, who did simply state that “narcissism” was overused in today’s world, while later brilliantly analyzing the facial configurations of the killer’s prior victims to show that key elements coincided with his own face.

It is true that Facebook is used by many for trivial purposes, but to condemn the internet as a dangerous innovation that causes sadism and a life of mayhem directed against women is overreaching of a particularly dangerous, almost criminal character. And, oh, the internet is possibly the most democratizing technical innovation of the recent past. Finally, the gatekeepers of mass media have lost their monopoly on news and opinion.

Added 5-21-10: The Mentalist ended its second season on 5-20, beginning with a televised murder of a woman alone in her bed. The plot was remarkably similar to that of Criminal Minds, except that now it is clear that the threat of the internet extends to ordinary persons possessed of movie cameras, hence able to realize their demonic ambitions. But this series was more literary than the Criminal Minds episode, for the serial killer Red John, having mentalist Patrick Jane in his clutches (wrapped in plastic), and wearing a mask quotes Blake’s famous poem about the Reign of Terror (1793-94), “The Tyger”. (The first verse only: Tyger! Tyger! burning bright /In the forests of the night,/What immortal hand or eye/Could frame thy fearful symmetry?)  . Blake’s poem is not just about the Terror and the furies of unleashed mobs, but about the Promethean element in civilization that has continuously terrified the upper classes in the Age of Revolution. But here is the best part. Patrick Jane returns to his austere prison-like room (the iron cage of materialism?), lies down on a mattress very much like a pallet, with the Red John smiley face painted on the wall above his bed. And the mentalist (an opponent of magical thinking) then repeats the first verse of “The Tyger.” What to make of this?
Bruno Heller (writer for the HBO series Rome as well as The Mentalist) is an educated man. He knows about Doppelgängers. As a rejector of the supernatural, Heller probably knows that artists who write against the centuries of magical thinking are educating the lower orders in the ways of empiricism, and no less than Herman Melville, fears the volcanic rage within himself that he could be releasing in the proto-revolutionary audience by mocking those who do not rely upon close observation of this world. Bruno Heller’s Promethean characters, no less than Melville’s Captain Ahab and other red-flag-flying usurpers of priestly authority, are both the mentalist (does he have a heart?) and Red John.

[Added 12-15-10. I have read Zoe Heller’s The Believers, and in an interview she discloses that her father Lukas is anti-religion, married a non-Jew, and has or had a half-sister who survived Auschwitz. I cannot know what her brother Bruno Heller’s beliefs are regarding the Nazi phenomenon. Perhaps he is one who sees the seizure of power as the revolt of the masses and an outgrowth of Jacobinism in the West. From the Wiki description of the family, they all sound like liberals.]

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